Big Papa and the Time Machine by Daniel Bernstrom, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (9780062463319)
When a child doesn’t want to go to school because he’s scared and nervous, he talks with his grandfather. His grandfather understands exactly how his grandchild is feeling and takes him on a ride in his car which is also a time machine. It takes them both to see when he left his mother back in 1952 and had to be brave himself. They stop in 1955 to see him working up high on buildings, needing to get beyond being so scared. In 1957, Big Papa had to get over his fears to ask a lovely girl to dance, a girl who would eventually marry him. They then head to 1986 when the child was left with Big Papa. He wasn’t sure if he could take care of a baby all on his own. All about bravery in spite of being scared and nervous, this book shows that it is those moments that define a life.
Bernstrom takes readers on a real ride through history through the eyes of this African-American family. Generations appear and their clear love for one another is evident. Even with a baby being left behind for a grandparent to raise is shown as a chance to save a life and find a new way forward. Children in smaller non-nuclear families will recognize the connection between a sole adult and their child in these pages. It’s particularly lovely to see an African-American man in this role.
Evans makes the pages shine with light as he uses bright yellows and mystical swirls and stars to show the passing of time. Every page is saturated in color, glowing with the connection of the two characters. The child is never declared to be a specific gender in either the text or illustrations, making the book all the more inclusive.
A bright and vibrant look at why to be brave. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, illustrated by Charlene Chua (9781534411333)
Amy can do a lot of things like brush her teeth and tie her shoes. But the one thing she can’t do is make the perfect bao, a steamed dumpling. So she sets out one day to make the perfect bao. It’s an all-day effort by her entire family. Her father makes the bao dough, and Amy helps him pound the dough and let it rise. Her mother makes the filling, and Amy helps her too. Then everyone sits down at the table to form the bao, including Amy’s grandmother. When things don’t go right for Amy, everyone offers her advice on how to do it. That’s when Amy realizes that the dough has been cut for adult hands. When her grandmother cuts the dough into smaller pieces for Amy, suddenly she too can make perfect bao! In the end though, all of the bao, perfect or not, taste delicious.
Zhang takes the universal story of a young person not being as good at something as they want to be and wraps it in a delicious bao package. Readers are invited into Amy’s Chinese-American home and she leads readers through the process of making bao. The frustrations of learning and perfecting a process are openly shared. The discovery that Amy makes that solves the problem is nicely portrayed as well and I appreciate that the child is the one who realizes her own solution.
The art by Chua is wonderfully bright and vivacious. Amy is shown as an optimist throughout, even as she is trying to brush her teeth and tie her shoes at the same time. The backgrounds in the illustrations suit the mood of the moment, moving from gold to orange to blue.
A tasty treat of a book that will leave readers hungry for more. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Aladdin.
Ordinary Girls by Blair Thornburgh (9780062447814)
Plum could not be more different than her excitable sister, Ginny. Ginny has a group of friends at their private school, while Plum doesn’t have any at all. She’d much prefer to do advance reading for her classes than engage with others her age. Ginny is about to graduate from high school and longs to get accepted into her university of choice, but it’s not that simple. First, she has to be accepted and then she needs enough financial aid to attend. While they may live in a large home, it’s filled with clutter and day-to-day life rather than being a show piece. Feeling more and more distant from her ever-more-agitated sister, Plum finds herself in a position to help, but only because of a secret romance. Now Plum has her own life, but it may take her away from her family right when they need her.
This is a contemporary tale with a classic heart. Riffing on Sense and Sensibility, this novel for teens takes one rather old-fashioned young lady and her sister who is her opposite and flings at them the trials of modern life. There are the costs of living when their mother loses her royalty payments, the grueling college application and financial aid process, bullying, and of course, kissing too. It’s a book that offers two great female characters. Plum is introverted, wildly funny and wise. Ginny is anxiety-ridden, loud, dramatic and loving. The two together make an ideal look at sisterhood.
Thornburgh writes with a specific style here. It even more tightly ties the story to classic literature and also reveals Plum’s thoughts and her own way of thinking. The story never drags, instead it is filled with drama and disasters large and small. The writing is a delightful mix of classic and modern with plenty of humor too.
A deep look at sisterhood that is funny and rich. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperTeen.
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (9780062747808)
Jude lives in Syria with her beloved older brother and her parents. As her older brother gets involved in the political battles around them, her parents decide that it is too dangerous for Jude and her pregnant mother to stay in Syria. So Jude and her mother move to Cincinnati to live with Jude’s uncle. America is very different than Syria, much louder and faster, and filled with a language that Jude barely understands. As Jude gets acclimated to living in the United States, she steadily makes new friends along the way. Her love of movies and desire to perform lead her to audition for the school musical. But when the attacks of 9-11 occur, the country that Jude has grown comfortable in changes to be more hostile to Muslims. Jude needs to rediscover what she loves about both Syria and the United States, her two homes.
This novel is written in verse, making for a very readable work. Told in Jude’s voice, the poetry allows readers to see how she feels about leaving Syria, how lost she feels when she comes to Cincinnati, and how she starts to find her way. The importance of English Language Learner classes are emphasized, both in learning the language but also in finding a group of friends. Jude also finds friends in other ways, connecting over shared cultures and shared interests.
Jude’s voice is vital to find in a middle grade novel. My favorite chapters are where Jude gets angry and voices her pain at the injustice of being labeled in a certain way, feared because of her religion, judged because of her headscarf. Those moments are powerful and raw, ringing with truth on the page.
Beautifully written with an amazing Syrian heroine at its center, this book is a great read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.
Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn (9781681197432)
Cat and Chicken live in San Francisco with their mother who works several jobs, but one is to be a children’s book author with books that feature Cat and Chicken as a caterpillar and chicken. When they head across the country for a summer job, their plans suddenly fall through. Now Cat and Chicken must stay with grandparents they have never met before while their mother works in Atlanta. Their grandparents live on Gingerbread Island, a place their mother hasn’t returned to since before Cat was born. Lily, their grandmother, is warm and maternal, quickly adapting to Chicken’s special needs. Macon, their grandfather, is more distant and gruff, working in his workshop and going on long walks alone. As Cat and Chicken get to know them, they find a wonderful pair of grandparents who love them immensely, so Cat tries to figure out how to bring her family back together again. She hopes that entering a fishing contest, a sport her mother used to love, with give them an opportunity to bond. But things don’t quite work out as planned, just like in her mother’s books.
McDunn has written the ideal summer read. It has a lightness to it that is pure summer sunshine, one that invites reading with sand between your toes or a flashlight in a tent. At the same time, the characters and story wrestle with larger issues of what family means, how a family can form a rift, and how the pressure of having a little brother who is neurodiverse can be challenging for an older sibling. I deeply appreciated Chicken as a character. He is not labeled in any way in the story but shown as having specific challenges that make looking after him different from other children.
Cat herself is a very strong young woman who holds her family together. Her grandmother recognizes that and helps Cat understand better what she is doing. As her grandparents step in to allow Cat to have a summer as a child, she fights them, trying to retain her role as Chicken’s caretaker. That process of letting go is beautifully shown, given time and patience. Throughout the book, nothing is simple, not even Cat’s enemy on the island, whose own story provides reasons for his actions.
Richly drawn and yet still summer light, this novel is a delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.
Night Job by Karen Hesse, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (9780763662387)
Released on September 11, 2018.
On Friday nights, a little boy goes with his father to work. They leave after dark on his father’s motorcycle, head across the bridge, and enter the closed school. His father has a big ring of keys to open the door. They clean the gym first, while the little boy plays basketball. They bring a radio with them from room to room, listening to baseball games. At ten at night, they eat the lunch they brought with them. While his father cleans the library, the boy falls asleep reading on the couch. His father wakes him at four in the morning to head back home, across the bridge. The two fall asleep together curled in the big recliner.
Newbery Medal winner Hesse captures the wonder of going to work with a parent and brings in the beauty of being out at night as well. Along the way, the work of a parent who has a night job is honored. As a child of a teacher, I enjoyed the empty hallways of a school closed for the weekend or summer. It’s a beautiful thing to have those areas be silent and just for you. That feeling is shown here clearly, as the boy makes the spaces his own.
The connection between father and son is a focus of the story and the illustrations. The pictures by Karas are done in his signature style and use darkness and light cleverly. The father and son are shown as a pair throughout the book, highlighting their special time together whether in the bright gym or on the dark road.
A quiet book about jobs, connections and families. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.
Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram (9780525552963)
Darius can’t seem to fit in anywhere. He is teased at school for being fat and Muslim. He’s never really had a friend. His father doesn’t approve of anything he does and often seems ashamed that Darius is his son. Darius is nothing like his younger sister who is adorable, outgoing and speaks flawless Farsi. So when Darius and his family take their first-ever trip to Iran to see his ailing grandfather, Darius wonders if anything will be different there. There he finally gets to meet his grandparents. His grandfather is intimidating, still watering his trees from up on his roof and driving at breakneck speeds. At the same time, he also gets lost sometimes and has outbursts of temper. Darius’ grandmother is pure love and kindness, creating meals and sharing tea. So when Darius meets Sohrab, a boy from the neighborhood, they cautiously make friends. There are bumps along the way, penis jokes taken too far, but soon they are fast friends who share a special spot overlooking Yazd. When tragedy strikes Sohrab’s family though, Darius is unsure how to help and ends up driving a wedge in their friendship that may not be able to be mended.
This book entirely stole my heart. I enjoyed Darius himself from the very beginning as he struggled with American teenage culture. However, the book truly begins when they get to Iran. It is there that Darius blossoms, but slowly and naturally. The entire book clicks together, beautifully depicting Yazd, carefully leading readers through new experiences and new foods, and celebrating the culture of Iran.
In many ways this book is a love letter to the city of Yazd and Iran itself, but it is also deeply about Darius and his growth as he finds a best friend and a place he fits. There are profound statements here about depression, stress to fit in and the sudden magic of discovering what true friendship is. There is also great humor, struggles to be understood and to understand, cultural issues and family tensions and joy. It’s complicated, just like every good novel should be.
Come fall in love with Darius and Iran at the same time in this amazing debut novel. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Dial Books.
The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie (9781534414464)
When Gwyn and her family move in with her Nana in rural Iowa, it’s a big change from living in New York City. It’s all to help her mother, Vienna, develop new memories. Vienna remembers nothing since she was thirteen, including Gwyn and her little sister Bitty. Gwyn and Bitty quickly befriend two boys from the neighborhood, Micah and Jimmy. They live with Micah’s mother, Gaysie Cutter, a woman who tries to bury Gwyn alive the first time they meet. So when a man goes missing, Gwyn knows that Gaysie had to have something to do with it. Now she just has to prove it and not damage her friendship with Jimmy and Micah along the way. But there are many secrets in their small town, ones that threaten to topple Gwyn’s theory of Gaysie’s guilt.
This is Makechnie’s first novel, and it is very impressive. Gwyn is a stellar character, who doesn’t shy away from being entirely herself and different from everyone else. She is a girl who will learn how to lift fingerprints, share her theories directly with the police, stand up to a group of bullies, and dare to speak up around Gaysie Cutter. All of the characters are well drawn and interesting, including Gwyn’s mother who is struggling with the limits of her memory, her father who could be a suspect too, and the two boys who are as different as possible but also brothers through and through.
This story has many layers, making it a very rich read for middle graders. One piece that really works well is the layering of the previous generation growing up in the same small Iowa town. As Gwyn learns of the connection between her mother, father and Gaysie during their childhood, she also finds out about a terrible accident that changed them all forever. That element is then echoed through to the present day with the new generation of children getting into trouble themselves.
A great read, a grand mystery, and a strong protagonist. Appropriate for ages 9-12. (Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.)
American Panda by Gloria Chao (9781481499101)
Mei is a freshman at MIT. Her Taiwanese-American parents have decided that she will become a doctor, though Mei tends to be a bit freaked out by germs. They also want her only to marry a Taiwanese boy selected by them. As Mei chafes under their expectations and excessive attention, she starts to date a Japanese-American boy at MIT. But her brother was kicked out of the family for dating a girl her parents didn’t approve of, so she has to keep him secret. She is also keeping her love for dancing and her dream of owning a dance studio from her parents. And when she starts to see her brother again, she also can’t tell them that. As Mei’s lies and secrets grow larger, it becomes inevitable that they will topple over and the truth will come out. But what does that mean for her relationship with her parents and extended family, going to MIT and her own dreams?
Chao has created a book that she needed as a teenager, one that reflects the deep-seated expectations of a family. At times, the reactions and actions of the family are horrifying, including the put downs of Mei, the disowning of children, and the expectation that the parents’ opinions are all that matter in every scenario. And still, readers will see the love shine through since Chao allows spaces to form that give Mei and her family hope for reconciliation in the future.
The book is masterfully written allowing readers to see culture as both a foundation but also as a constricting world at times. She imbues the entire novel with humor, since Mei is funny and smart, seeing the world through her own unique lens. The messages from Mei’s mother pop up between chapters, offering their own moments of laughter. The steady growth of connection between Mei and her mother is one of the most vital parts of the book, as Mei’s discovery of her own voice allows her mother to step forward too.
A book that belongs in all public libraries, this novel will speak universally to all teenagers looking to make their own paths. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
(Reviewed from copy provided by Simon Pulse.)